Why Science May Be Slowing Down

A red arrow representing scientific breakthroughs next to blue arrows hitting a wall representing science slowing down.

In recent years, worries have risen in scientific and governmental circles about whether the rate of innovation in science, and especially those special discoveries considered true ‘breakthrough science’, has been slowing down. Over the course of the last century and a half or so, most of us have gotten used to the high speed with which new insights, new technologies, and new fundamental ideas have come in, whether about astrophysics, social relations, or medicine and health. 

While not all discoveries have necessarily proven beneficial to humanity over time – just think of leaded petrol or the nuclear bomb – most have improved our lives considerably and offered confidence in our ability to understand the nature of the universe. So what happens if this changes, and what is causing it?

Measuring Scientific Productivity

To understand the problem, we have to first grasp what is happening. Measuring scientific progress is a tricky affair, as ideas don’t easily lend themselves to being counted directly. Already in 2019, using ‘breakthrough patents’ and certain citation measures as proxies for the rate of scientific progress, some economists warned that the per capita rate of innovation was slowing down. While overall innovation is still increasing, growth in overall population and in the population of scientists is much greater, meaning we are doing less breakthrough work per scientist.

These were just preliminary measurements, however – a loose indication of what might be going on. Just a few days ago, scientists published a major study in Nature using a great variety of measures relating to both patents and citations, with various tests to make sure the results would still hold up given different citation practices and the like. Their finding: compared to research in the middle of the 20th century, more and more science is incrementally building on existing ideas and knowledge, and less science is making breakthrough discoveries. As the paper puts it: “papers, patents and even grant applications have become less novel relative to prior work and less likely to connect disparate areas of knowledge, both of which are precursors of innovation.” So why is this?

What Causes Science Slowing Down?

Different explanations have been offered for the slowdown in scientific innovation. One is the structural change in the organisation of scientific research in the last half century or so. Here increased scientific competition may turn out to be working paradoxically against greater innovation. For example, in the computational and natural sciences, research teams are getting larger over time to compete more effectively on resources with teams at other institutions, and there is some evidence that larger research teams do less breakthrough work

Another factor is the infamous ‘publish or perish’ effect of scientific competition, leading to a large output of papers and publications which probably almost nobody reads. Finally, scientific competition may have led to overspecialisation, getting in the way of the broader view provided by interdisciplinary work that can really lead to new insights.

Potential Solutions to the Scientific Slowdown

What can be done about this? This is not easy to answer. Certainly, institutional solutions to the problems described above could be found: having more diverse team sizes, giving scholars more time to do ‘blue sky research’ free of the pressure to immediately publish workable results or pursue grants, and encouraging interdisciplinary work (something often promoted by academic institutions in word rather than deed).

Take the life sciences as an example of the whole. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) is a medical research institution specifically set up to allow for failures, reward long-term success in investigations, and freedom to experiment. Investigations of its results found that researchers at the HHMI produced high impact papers at a higher rate than a control group of the US National Institutes of Health, and that they were able to pursue more novel lines of inquiry.

On a smaller scale, we can take away practical obstacles to research. Scholars and researchers waste a lot of time dealing with the digital and computing processes required to make experimentation and collaboration possible. One can think here of everything from endlessly sending different versions of files back and forth via Dropbox links to the pains of configuring the hardware needed to run applications on different devices. The same goes for the work involved in making sure the fruits of scientific research are reproducible.

The larger problems involved in reconfiguring scientific institutions and incentives are work that governments, grant-giving bodies and the scientific community will have to debate over the coming years (and perhaps even decades). In the meantime, researchers involved in computational science and confronted with that same everyday overhead of scientific experimentation have created Nuvolos, the integrated cloud platform for scientific research. Nuvolos saves scientists and scholars valuable time on the practicalities of IT configuration, collaboration, data versioning, and much more. While it cannot guarantee the outcome of your research, it can guarantee that you will have more time to dedicate to making that outcome as good and innovative as it can be.

To learn more about how Nuvolos can help experiment and collaborate faster, start a free trial now or book a demonstration.